I’m admitted to the ward on a Thursday. I know it’s a Thursday because during the interview to assess my mental state I was asked twice if I knew what day it was. I answered incorrectly both times, just to secure my admission. I’d visited my GP at noon and by six pm I was barefoot having my possessions inventoried by the orderlies. As they flick through my documents and underwear I notice that the television in the recreation room is showing news footage of the celebrations. I look away from it and they see me do so.
I’m shown to my room by a gentle, African-named orderly who hands me a bracelet to open my door’s electronic lock. He says to settle in and that he’ll be back soon to perform some tests. I look around. There’s a single bed, a toilet without a seat, a chair too heavy to be thrown and a view from the window leading into a sea of trees. I think about when you first invited me into your flat. How I admired your books on the shelves, laughed at the art, stared into the city evening, your hands around my chest. I try to remember how that felt, but nothing arrives.
I’d seen the bulletins many times. Adverts between shows, notifications embedded in the apps that I browse aimlessly; IF YOU ARE NOT PARTICIPATING, YOU ARE UNDER SUSPICION. Trusted public figures declaring that if you are not joining in the revelries then you must immediately consider treatment. Just a week ago I saw a despairing woman apprehended on the street near my home, cheeks awash with tears as the plain-clothed agents walked her to their van. The kindly orderly tells me on the introduction tour that many of my fellow patients are not here for refusal to participate, many are sufferers of conditions one would traditionally expect someone here to be plagued with, yet I’m skeptical of his assurances.
That evening I wander the halls. The facilities are new, the surfaces laminate and PVC-covered, the lights halogen and stark. I see the orderlies in the central office filing paperwork and checking their phones. Every time I pass the room it smells of peeled oranges. I never, on that first night, question if I belong here. I am a ghost that has haunted these corridors since long before they were built, rattling my chains to stake a claim to this ground. On my final stroll before attempting sleep I see a catatonic old man being escorted from his room. He is taken to room 114, the lone room at the end of the hall; the only room with an orderly standing guard outside at all times.
During the night I hear a woman with a child-like voice pacing just outside my room. “Hello? Hello, is that you Marshall?” is all she murmurs. Somehow I eventually fall asleep.
On the second day I meet Dillon. I’m outside in the smoking area, sat on one of the too-heavy chairs that are dotted around the high wire fence, when we get to talking. He’s wearing wrap-around sunglasses even though it’s overcast and their reflective surface bounces back my image like some cursed mirror. He tells me he’s been brought here under the pretext of suffering paranoia and delusions, however he knows that the real reason for his incarceration was his unwillingness to join in a major local celebration. He asks how I’ve ended up here. I tell him paranoia and delusions, because I don’t want to tell the truth.
I sit for dinner with Dillon and we watch, as we eat pasta bake off our plastic plates, a woman with her arms full of stuffed toys dance between the tables as she sings in some fictitious language. When we take the plates back to the counter he slips a note into my hand; LET’S SMOKE, THEY CAN’T HEAR US THERE.
I remember before the celebrations began. We were at our peak, riding the crest of a wave that would soon burst upon the shore. That night we got drunk in your flat and decided to rearrange the furniture. You fell onto me on the floor, your hair enveloping my head so everything in my peripheral was only you. Just a month before we had visited your family’s cottage out west and it rained the whole time we were there. We kept the fire burning through those cold nights, wrapped in blankets, agreeing that this was all we needed, as long as we could keep each other warm. These memories still exist in me, yet the texture has eroded and your face blurs increasingly by the day.
Outside, in the wind, Dillon sits me down in the far corner of the garden. “We’re going to get out of here,” he tells me. “Neither of us belong here.” I still don’t have it in me to tell him how I’d ended up here. How in one afternoon I’d ceded my entire personal liberty, handed the reigns of my future to this sterile facility. I don’t even care if I deserve it or not, my internment is true enough for me. Yet his determination seems so sincere, and what he says next catches my curiosity enough to at least make me want to assist in his dreams of freedom, even if they are not my own. “Our answer is in room 114.”
That night I digest Dillon’s plan. I’m to observe the shift patterns of the orderlies who guard room 114, slowly, over the coming days. They’re all caught up in the frenzy of the celebrations like everyone else, one would be bound to make a mistake at some point. I turn off the light and listen for the woman with the child’s voice, but all I hear is the distant echo of people cheering, reverberating around my brain.
The nature of the celebrations never sat right with me. I remember wandering the streets, without you next to me, and feeling a heavy melancholy as the happy people streamed past. Waving their banners, cheering to the sky, their masks ornate yet terrifyingly distant. The scale of the parties once would have entranced me, now I feel like a statue carved in a long-gone era, weathered by the storms.
Over the next few days I do as Dillon asks, half-heartedly I will admit, and mostly as a way to stave off the tedium of life on the ward. Meals are at eight, midday and five every day and my meds are given to me every four hours. When it’s time for them to be administered I am taken to the medication room next to the main office. The nurses are all young, attractive women and I try to remain composed as they stand above me in silence, watching as I swallow the large, dry yellow pills. I’ve noticed that the guards outside room 114 only ever seem to act outside of their charge very early in the morning, perhaps because of a hangover, or perhaps because the ward tends to be at its calmest then, for there is little to wake up for here.
I tell Dillon my observations in our corner of the smoking area. This afternoon he seems skittish, and paces around me, constantly glancing at the cameras. “They have agents here, in disguise,” he says. “They know we know what they’re doing in that room, we haven’t got much time.” As he moves I see the scars below his sleeves. “We’ll do it tomorrow.” I nod at everything he says, all the while feeling a growing sadness deep within my chest for Dillon and wherever his future lies.
Something happens that evening. Whether brought on by the pangs of empathy I feel for my new friend, or my mind searching for a meridian to settle upon in this drab environment, but lying there in bed I’m transported back to the last time I saw you. We were arguing, as we’d been doing for some time, whilst a celebration was taking place on the street outside. You were begging me to join in. Holding my hands, with that look in your eyes that I only now realise was a plea, a last chance. I should have done things differently, took your hand and stepped outside with you. Only now, lying here in the dark, do I let you obliterate me.
In the early hours of the morning, as I lie unable to sleep, I hear a commotion in the hallway. I’m used to this by now, every few hours there’s the child-voiced woman pacing, or the young Muslim boy banging on his door, or the scared old woman crying. But those noises always come from one place. This is someone being moved; feet squeaking as they kick the floor, a yelling voice being muffled, a door slamming. I try not to think about it and return to my pity.
The next morning I wake up at the same time as normal. I go outside for a cigarette, then make myself cereal and sit in the canteen. I keep looking for Dillon but do not see him. I finish eating, place the bowl on the counter and go to the medication room. The nurses stand around as I swallow a cup full of twice as many pills as usual. I go for another smoke, then sit down in the recreation room. On the television is a live broadcast of one of the biggest celebrations I’ve ever seen. Thousands and thousands of people, all out on the streets cheering and waving their colourful banners. In the midst of this carnival, I spot you. Deep in the throng; there you are, smiling and waving in rapturous ecstasy. I wave back and for a brief moment you turn to the cameras and smile that smile I know very well. I’m so caught up in this scene that I do not hear the orderlies behind me. I remain smiling as they drag me away from you.